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Free radicals

"We wanted to do something different that allows people to express themselves however they want," BTS core member Tania Vamont, a 24-year-old Emerson graduate who also works with the Boston-based anarchist union BAAM!, told a room of reporters the Saturday before the convention. "So if people want to do street theater, or someone wants to have a picket, or someone wants to pick up trash or connect with some folks in the community — people decide in their own groups to express themselves however they would like, whether it’s resisting the DNC or working with a local community group."

All well and good, but the question for most observers was, what did "resisting the DNC" mean? BTSers swore they were "explicitly nonviolent," and wouldn’t encourage direct actions that would harm people or animals. But that didn’t really answer the question. And besides, no one, it seemed, really believed them.

Going public

Every Bl(A)ck Tea Society meeting began nearly the same way, with Frank Little, a husky man with fuzzy mutton-chop sideburns and a German-shepherd bark, issuing the disclaimer: "If you are a cop or government official, leave now. Go. Get out. You are not welcome here — you are violating our civil rights."

After each meeting’s police disclaimer, reporters were asked to identify themselves. As they raised their hands, a BTS member would inform them that the gathering was either off the record or to be used for background purposes only, with the added caveat that journalists couldn’t take notes, directly quote anything said during the meeting, or give physical descriptions of anyone present. There were two reasons for this, they said: to limit out-of-context quotes, and to make sure that everyone in the room was comfortable. Nearly every time, reporters flinched, showing the kind of irked disappointment that only another thwarted journalist can detect. At my first meeting, a Hartford Courant reporter was stunned. He begged for clarification. "Can I at least describe the atmosphere?"

"If you’re unsure about specifics, just ask," said Frank forcefully.

The BTS could get away with these demands. It had something the media wanted — a seemingly juicy story about anarchists demonstrating against the DNC — so it had leverage to impose its rules. Then again, BTS organizers didn’t want to exclude the press entirely. The media had two things they wanted: the means to get out their message, and the power to keep them protected.

The public face of the Bl(A)ck Tea Society consisted of eight or nine press-savvy individuals. They were articulate, informed, and educated enough to show the world that radicals weren’t napalm-throwing rioters, that consensus decision-making didn’t portend structural disorder, that anarchism didn’t mean shattered store windows and smoldering buildings. Before speaking with journalists, BTS members were carefully primed with an internal handbook explaining how to deal with the fourth estate. "We tried to put together a media packet that said, ‘Hey, if you are going to talk to the media, make sure to ask the deadline, try to get a feel for what the angle is,’" said Tania. "Something like ‘Here’re the basic facts of the group that everybody has agreed to say.’"

Tania Vamont is a thin graphic designer with big eyes, baggy jeans, and manic energy. She’s dabbled in journalism, which helped her prep the group for maneuvering the media. The BTS member most quoted in the press was Elly Guillette, a 28-year-old financial analyst who secured all the permits from the city, sketched the march routes, and arranged to rent the Convergence Center. The group’s webmaster was Andrew Little, a 21-year-old with pants rolled up to his shins, gelled black hair, and a thin lip ring. There was Brian, a sandy-haired guy with the air of a valedictorian. Dan was the resident bike activist. Emma Lang represented the group’s wholesomeness; the sweet-faced daughter of ’60s radicals, she grew up serenaded by labor songs rather than lullabies, got called "pinko" by junior-high classmates, and was arrested with her mother at a mass mobilization when she was 14. She planned to act as a street medic during the convention, along with the BTS’s resident troubadour, Evan Greer, a Swarthmore College student with a curly mop of brown hair who writes songs like "Ode to Dead Presidents" ("Did you buy a Coca-Cola on the beach?/Was it tasty with your Big Mac and fries?/Because far away across the sea/Where nothin’ but the trade is free/The workers get shot/When they try to unionize"). Will Taggart, a 29-year-old MIT PhD student, wrote his undergraduate thesis on the sanctions on Iraq. A 21-year-old film student at the Massachusetts College of Art, Mothra is a punk who wears thick eyeliner, a heavy bullet belt, and tight black pants with ripped knees. She says she’ll probably write in her boyfriend’s name on the ballot in November.

Together, they represented the Bl(A)ck Tea Society. They knew the daily papers needed to fill their pages with proper names, and that quotes from young radicals with obvious pseudonyms wouldn’t seem credible. So, with the exception of Mothra, they supplied "street names" — believable first and last names that were used even during BTS meetings.

And so Andrew Little isn’t really Andrew Little. Tania Vamont has written for a local weekly paper under a different last name. Dan appeared on the cover of the Boston Globe with another first name. Frank Little could be Frank Little — but then again, he could be anyone.


Thursday, July 14. Comedy Central’s The Daily Show airs an interview with BTS members Andrew Little and Robert Baker in a spoof highlighting the absurdity of the Free Speech Zone, the 29,000-square-foot protest pen constructed outside the FleetCenter during the DNC:

Ed Helms, The Daily Show correspondent: "How do you guys plan on using the Free Speech Zone?"

Andrew Little: "I don’t plan to come anywhere near this zone. The exits have metal girders around them, which people can be running into. People are going to get hurt."

Helms (voiceover): "Apparently in Boston, anarchist means pussy."

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Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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